What’s the relationship between money and well-being? To answer this question, researchers at the Wharton School of Business collected 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants who provided “in-the-moment” snapshots of their feelings during daily life. This research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms that money does influence happiness and, contrary to previous influential research on the subject suggesting that this plateaus above $75,000, there was no dollar value at which it stopped mattering to an individual’s well-being.
Most previous studies of the money-happiness link focused on evaluative well- being, which encompasses overall satisfaction with life. But this study aimed to assess both “evaluative” and “experienced” well-being, the latter indicating how people feel in the moment.
Through an app created by Wharton, called Track Your Happiness, people described their feelings a few times each day, with check-in times randomized per participant. To measure “experienced” well-being, each check-in asked them, “How do you feel right now?” on a scale ranging from “very bad” to “very good.” At least once during the process, participants also answered the question, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” on a scale of “not at all” to “extremely.” This part of the assessment measured “evaluative” well-being.
Secondary measures of experienced well-being included 12 specific feelings, five positive one (which were confident, good, inspired, interested, and proud) and seven negative one (which were afraid, angry, bad, bored, sad, stressed, and upset). Secondary measures of evaluative well- being included two other measures of life satisfaction collected on an intake survey.
In total, 33,391 employed, 18-to-65-year-olds in the United States provided 1,725,994 reports of experienced well- being. The Wharton researchers then calculated the average level of well-being for each person and analyzed its relationship to their income.
A major objective was to confirm the findings of a 2010 research study that suggested that as people earn more money their well-being increases, but their experienced well-being plateaus once annual household income hits $75,000. But when they looked across a wide range of income levels, they found that all forms of well-being continued to rise with income. They didn’t see any sort of kink or inflection point in the curve where money stops mattering. Instead, happiness keeps increasing with income.
Here, “income” refers to a concept known as logarithmic income; rather than each dollar mattering the same to each person, each dollar starts to matter less the more a person earns. We would expect two people earning $25,000 and $50,000, respectively, to have the same difference in well-being as two people earning $100,000 and $200,000, respectively. In other words, proportional differences in income matter the same to everyone.
Beyond that, this work also provides a deeper understanding of the link between income and happiness. Higher earners are happier, in part, because of an increased sense of control over life. When you have more money, you have more choices about how to live your life. You can likely see this in the pandemic. People living paycheck-to-paycheck who lost their job probably needed to take the first available job to stay afloat, even if it was one they disliked. People with a financial cushion could wait for a job that was a better fit. Across decisions big and small, having more money gives a person more choices and a greater sense of autonomy.
Furthermore, although money might be good for happiness, the study found that people who equated money and success were less happy than those who didn’t. I also found that people who earned more money worked longer hours and felt more pressed for time.
Though the study does show that income matters beyond a previously assessed threshold, people should not get the idea that they should focus more on money. The research also showed that, in actuality, income is only a modest determinant of happiness.
If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going. Yes, it is a factor that matters, but it’s just one of many that people can control.
PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, September 21, 2010, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. © 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
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